DALE MORRIS finds there are mountains of things to do in South Africa for the adrenaline junkie.
Cruise ship tours, deckchairs by the pool, holiday camp Cliff Richard weekenders with Grandma: is this what you really want from a holiday? Of course not. Not if you’re one of the ever-growing legion of travellers whose idea of a relaxing break involves leaping out of aeroplanes, jumping off bridges or merrily bobbing down a grade six rapid in an inner tube.
We can probably blame the National Geographic Channel for all this gung-ho tomfoolery, with their broadcasts of daredevils doing crazy things in wonderful places, making it all look so easy. Now we, the ordinary folk, want to do these things as well. Abseiling, bungee jumping, cliff climbing, quad biking, hang gliding, kite surfing, hot air ballooning, extreme caving, shark baiting, mountain biking, paragliding, skydiving, croc wrestling, plus many other novel forms of suicide are no longer solely the pursuits of the highly trained or clinically insane.
South Africa’s abundance of mountains, rivers and surf zones has made it a firm favourite with the edge-pushers. Resting between the Western Cape’s Outeniqua and Swartberg Mountains, Klein Karoo (Little Karoo) on the other hand is a wide drowsy valley known mostly for its wineries and Ostrich farms. The locals here are a quiet rural bunch, with a penchant for grape pressing and a fondness for sheep.
An unlikely gathering place for rambunctious adrenaline junkies, then – if it weren’t for the jagged peaks, cavernous valleys and soaring cliffs that draw them in like moths to a flame. The sleepy Little Karoo is fast becoming an adventure capital, so I saddled up my mountain bike and headed over to check it out.
Day 1: Down the mountains
I have been reliably informed by local folk that the view atop the world famous Swartberg pass is breathtaking. Mountains soar regally from the beautiful Karoo, delicate clouds swirl, flowers bloom and breezes ruffle the hair. However, because of a freezing pea soup fog, I couldn’t see a bloody thing.
Crappy weather is not uncommon at the Swartberg summit, but alas I had come ill-prepared for my mountain bike descent. With just a thin jumper and flip-flops I sat trembling on my saddle like a Chihuahua high on coke. Nevertheless, once the dirt road steepened and my velocity picked up to around mach-3, the cold was soon forgotten, replaced instead by adrenaline’s heat.
Splattering mud, hairpin turns, poor visibility and numerous collisions with plants made for a jolly good rip roaring ride.
Day 2: Under the mountains
There are miles of cave systems snaking deep into the heart of the Swartbergs, humid passageways where water and minerals have sculpted unearthly shapes as old as the hills themselves. Some of these grottos are well-trodden tourist traps, but local guide and self-confessed cave junkie Johan Uys knows all about the ones which aren’t.
It’s going to be a tight squeeze in there,” he told me, and judging by the miniscule entrance, he wasn’t exaggerating. You couldn’t get an endoscope up that, I thought. With a vigorous shove from behind, Johan proved me wrong.
The twisting tube winding off into the blackness beyond was wet, smooth and organic to the eye, and as I progressed on hand and knee, I felt as if I were a piece of poo moving slowly down a giant’s intestine.
After hours of exploration through narrow passageways and glittering caverns, I popped out through an orifice once more into the bright light of the African sun.
Day 3: Above the mountains
“Hold on Dale. I am now going to demonstrate an emergency landing.”
And with that, Herman the microlight pilot took his little vehicle into a swerving dive towards the ground.
The mountains spun, my stomach did a back flip and I nearly passed out with fear.
“Fun, eh?” he exclaimed, pulling up just in time to avoid impacting with a flock of startled ostriches.
“Yeah, brilliant!” I replied, as one should when confronted by an unstable lunatic in search of praise.
Every morning before breakfast Herman takes a flip over the Little Karoo, sharing the skies with other airborne adventurers – hot air balloons, motorised paragliders, mini helicopters and skydivers all getting high on a combination of scenery, adrenaline and early morning coffee.
Day 4: Up the mountains
Last but not least, I took a trip up to the highest point on the Western Cape.
At 2325m, Seweweeksport peak may not sound very tall but it’s steeper than the price of a round in a London pub.
Using quad bikes, climbing ropes and walking boots, our little group of intrepid mountaineers reached the top in just under 10 hours. There, we slept in a cave, ate peanut brittle bars and groaned about blisters and trembling thighs. The following morning, we witnessed a glorious sunrise, had a cup of tea and then went back down, destroying our knees in the process.
In less than a week, the Little Karoo had allowed me to experience discomfit and fear in very large doses. And still I’d gone back for more – after every “test” it felt as if something special had been achieved. It’s what adventure tourism is all about: doing things you never thought you could do, and finding out you can.
• To get to Little Karoo, catch the Baz Bus (www.bazbus.co.za) from Cape Town to either Oudtshoorn or Calitzdorp. From Johannesberg you can get the Translux (www.translux.co.za) or Intercape bus (www.intercape.co.za).
• Most activities can be arranged through hostels in Oudtshoorn, the hub of Little Karoo. Backpackers Paradise (www.backpackersparadise.hostel.com) arrange bike hire and a shuttle to the top of the pass for around £15. Swartberg adventures (www.swartbergadventures. co.za) organise numerous activities including quad biking, caving and mountaineering. Microlight flights with Herman cost around £20 for 40 minutes. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book.”